There are 358 Division 1 men’s college basketball teams that played this past season. Of those, Wisconsin was No. 315 in the nation in terms of bench minutes played. This was something that was discussed throughout the season as there were plenty of games, for instance in the Big Ten Tournament against Michigan State where the bench combined for 40 minutes of playing time and one (1) point, where the reserves did not offer much, if anything, on offense.
That is not to say there weren’t games where the bench shined, Chris Vogt had a couple of games where he single-handedly changed the game with his energy, rebounding and second chance points, but those were the exception not the rule.
Recently the excellent college basketball newsletter from Jordan Sperber, Hoop Vision, did a dive into “does the bench matter in March?” (it’s a paid newsletter, but this one is free) and it got me thinking about Wisconsin’s bench usage. Sperber notes how the best teams use their bench LESS than you might think:
If we think about the top teams in the country this season, 16 teams finished the season with a kenpom adjusted efficiency margin better than 20 points.
Of those 16 teams, the four with the fewest bench minutes were the final four teams left playing in New Orleans.
Each of the four national semifinalists ranked near the bottom of the entire country in bench minutes. The breakdown:
UNC — 348th (out of 358)
Villanova — 320th
Duke — 314th
Kansas — 301st
Yes, it’s extreme — but not necessarily unprecedented.
Now there are some factors for why this happens. One of them, that the HV post notes, is the score of the game. In a close game, coaches are most likely to play their best players more and, usually, a team’s best players are also their starters. That makes a lot of sense! Looking at margin of victory last year, Wisconsin averaged a +4 scoring margin for the entire season, which was the No. 87 ranked margin. The No. 179 team (the middle point of the 358 total teams) in the country had a -0.1 scoring average, so the Badgers were above average in this stat.
The teams in the Final Four had scoring margin averages of +12.3 (No. 8, Duke), +11 (No. 13, Kansas), +9 (No. 23, Villanova) and +6.6 (No. 46, North Carolina) so it seems like those teams weren’t using their benches often even though they were winning their games by more points than Wisconsin.
Hoop Vision’s post also mentions that teams play their bench more earlier in the season as rotations are being figured out, but that didn’t really track for the Badgers. Outside of Vogt, they didn’t have a consistent bench player all season. Some of that can be traced, however, to things outside of Greg Gard’s control. Backup guards Jahcobi Neath and Lorne Bowman missed time due to injuries and personal matters respectively, for instance.
As for the other bench players, Ben Carlson was on a rollercoaster of minutes allotted and you never quite knew if he was going to play 20+ or two in a given game. Perhaps this is part of the reason he transferred even though his role, most likely, would’ve been more defined this coming season? Carter Gilmore, Jordan Davis and Markus Ilver all flashed briefly but none of them were ready/able to contribute meaningful backup minutes all season.
A lot of times you’d expect a coach to not play his backups much because the starters are so good and they are playing well, which is probably true for a team like Duke or Kansas or UNC or Villanova. You can see that in their larger average scoring margins than Wisconsin, for example. But, I think last season Gard was forced to play his starters so much because he didn’t really have a ton of other proven options.
Even if Brad Davison or Johnny Davis was having a poor game, who was he going to turn to? Sadly, I don’t know if there is any conclusion to make from this info other than the one Hoop Vision reached, which is: “have really good starters.” Sure, it’s great to have a good sixth man, but wouldn’t it be better if he were good enough to start?
As always, everything comes back to recruiting, and getting better players on the team will clearly help the team be better, but you can’t discount what Gard did with a team last year that didn’t have a lot of highly ranked talent on it. Wisconsin won the Big Ten, and has done so twice in the last three seasons, and at some point the narrative might have to change on Gard as a coach. Because he seems like a pretty good one if he’s winning conference titles without the best players in said conference.